When most people look to the sky during Christmas time, it’s in hopes of seeing Santa’s sleigh. For the people in Thomaston, Georgia, December is a time to take to the skies while helping less fortunate members of the community.
For the past 20 years, the West Central Georgia Flying Club, along with the Thomaston-Upson County Airport (KOPN) and local pilots, has hosted “Fly for Tots” the first Saturday each December. People come to the airport, donate an unwrapped gift valued at $20 or more or donate $20 in exchange for a flight over town. Children under the age of 16 may fly for a donation of just $10. The money and gifts go to the local Empty Stocking Fund, a non-profit that provides gifts to underprivileged children in Upson County, Georgia.
“It is a way to get the community to come out to the airport,” Safety Officer and Chief Instructor Jeff Hayes said.
The West Central Georgia Flying Club was founded in 1994 when the airport opened. At the time, it was the first new airport to open in Georgia in more than 20 years.
“We had a new place and we wanted to do something. At that time the flying club was just getting started,” Jeff said. “The local pilots, the airport authority and the community decided we’d get together and do a breakfast and fly people around. Basically bring a toy and we’d fly you around town. That’s how it started.”
The weather made the 2014 Fly for Tots a bit challenging, limiting the half dozen aircraft participating this year to just two hours of flying in the afternoon. But the event still raised $870 and collected 84 toys.
In past years when the weather was better, more than a dozen aircraft would participate – everything from the club’s 172, to a Maule, a Bonanza, and an Aeronca L-16. The event generally raises an average of $2,000 and collects about 150 to 200 toys that are placed under a Christmas tree at the FBO until they are picked up by the Empty Stocking Fund.
Although the request is for toys valued at $20, most are well over that, Jeff said. There are a wide range of gifts donated including footballs and basketballs, dolls, stuffed animals, board games, and even bicycles. This year toys and characters from the movie Frozen were popular donations.
“Most people are overly generous,” Club Secretary and Treasurer Derek Landstrom said. “We set up a tree and put the gifts under them. In past years we’ve had Santa there and put him in an airplane and have kids sit in his lap.”
The club has about 25 members and owns a 1978 Cessna 172, which rents for $75 an hour, wet. The initiation fee is $400 and monthly dues are $70. The club also offers a friends and family membership that has $30 monthly dues and an aircraft rental rate of $90 an hour, wet, as well as the $400 initiation fee. About half the members are friends and family, many of whom started flying with the club and have gone on to purchase their own aircraft but continue to support the club.
“A lot of people started flying in the club and now have their own airplane and hangar at the airport,” Derek said. “Thomaston’s not a very big town, but we’ve got 100 hangars now and every hangar is full. We have some of the cheapest gas around. It’s $3.85 right now. A lot of people wouldn’t be out there if it wasn’t for the club.”
While the Fly for Tots event isn’t designed to recruit members, Derek believes the event has helped the club pick up a member or two over the years. One thing is certain, it helps get the club and airport positive exposure in Thomaston and build ties with the community.
“We’re a rural community, but we have a few people in power that keep the airport a high priority,” Derek said. “It’s not only the flying club, it’s the local pilots, the local airport, the community – we all come together.”